Monday, November 27, 2006

TR - Cuba

11-15 to 11-24/06

Race Report
Marabana Marathon
Sun, Nov19/06
Havana, Cuba
Marathon # 276 – Country # 80
4:02:27 -  1 AG

 The planning for this trip began more than one year ago. I planned to run Greenland and Cuba in 2006 to complete a marathon in every country in North America (that had an official marathon). I thought the logistics for Greenland were difficult until I started planning this trip.

 The first obstacle I had to overcome was the regulation that prevented Americans from traveling to Cuba. To do that the Sports Manager and I renewed our Canadian passports so that we could officially travel as Canucks. Next we had to plan a route to Cuba and we decided to go through the Bahamas. While I was working on the travel logistics I contacted the race organization for information and was advised to work through their ‘travel’ agency in Cuba. After several emails went unanswered I began to suspect that the US Government was blocking emails to Cuba? So I sent an email to Nicole’s sister (Marie) in Canada and asked her to cut and paste it into an email from her address. Miraculously/strangely she received a response almost immediately and I was copied. After that I was able to communicate directly with the Agency in Cuba? Is Big Brother watching and censoring our mail?

 I received the necessary information and started the process to pay for the registration and a race package that included hotels and guides/assistance in Cuba. However there was a problem paying for it. Because of the American embargo Cuba cannot accept payment in US dollars or from any credit card or bank in the US. So I got Marie to wire funds from her account in Canada. The first wire was rejected because we sent US funds. Finally we succeeded by sending Canadian funds and the package was finally booked. I then spent months trying to get a receipt and an itinerary for the trip?

 During the next year we renewed our Canadian passports (that is much more difficult than a US passport) and tried to book our trip/flights to Cuba via Nassau. Many more problems/obstacles followed. Only one airline (Cubana) flies into Havana from Nassau and I was advised that they wouldn’t confirm a reservation without a hotel confirmation in Cuba. I couldn’t get any response from the agency in Cuba in spite of several emails.

Finally in late summer (after I returned from the trip to Greenland in August) the Agency in Cuba replied to me! The agent had been sick and off work for months and nobody else cared to pick up her work/customers for her? I finally received a hotel confirmation in Sept. I tried to book the flights. The schedule and prices for Nov travel had not been determined yet? I booked the connecting flights and hotels to/from Nassau from FL and waited. Finally in Oct I was able to book the flights from Nassau to Havana. I was billed in Euros through a bank in Paris – and they weren’t cheap! $600 to fly about 100 miles but there isn’t any competition! The flights on this trip cost more than $1000.00 – just to fly from FL to Havana?

 We decided to stay over in Nassau on both sides of the trip to reduce any risk of American immigration figuring out that we were passing through Nassau to Cuba. The Sports Manager had never been to the Bahamas so I figured I could show her around Nassau. By the time all the logistics had been figured out, booked and paid for I knew that this trip would be one of those “Been There- Done That- Ain’t Ever Going Back” trips! And then another major problem/disaster happened! Upon returning from a trip to South America in mid-Oct where I ran three marathons in one week I was diagnosed with DVT (blood clot) in the right leg. The leg was so sore/painful that I couldn’t run and the doctors told me to take at least three months off from running! No way! I went through too many problems setting up this trip – the trip was paid for and we were going – and I would complete the marathon if I had to crawl! I spent the next three weeks cross training in a pool at the YMCA and in the last week before the trip attempted a few training runs where I was able to run and walk without much pain. I had confidence that I would be able to run and walk the marathon?

 Now it was time to start the marathon trip and it is also time to start the actual race report.

We had learned on the Net that Cuba levied a 20% tax on US dollars so we exchanged $US for Euros in Miami en route to Nassau. We spent one night in Nassau on the outward leg. Our hotel was located on Cable Beach, about three miles from downtown Nassau so we had time to explore the town for our return trip. The following day we departed Nassau as Canucks and arrived shortly in Havana. The Agency was supposed to meet us at the airport but no rep? After wandering around the airport for 30 minutes I finally found the rep (who spoke no English) and he drove us to our hotel. We stayed in the Hotel Plaza, a magnificent old Colonial hotel on the edge of the City Square and Old Havana. The lobby was beautiful but the rooms were in desperate need of remodeling (only $120/night for this luxury). We decided to explore the old city near the hotel. It was very sad and depressing! The beautiful old Colonial buildings are decaying and crumbling due to lack of upkeep. And people live in these buildings! Most of the stores have been abandoned and boarded up due to lack of merchandise. The few stores that were open had people lined up for hours to buy the few pieces of merchandise (shoes, clothing, etc) that the stores still had in stock.

 When we walked a few blocks to a restaurant for dinner we noticed that there were no streetlights – they were turned off because there is not enough electricity. It was kind of eerie and scary at first but the locals considered it normal and we did not feel unsafe. There are restaurants and good food available for tourists and those who can afford it and the meals are cheap (chateaubriand for two with wine - $30). The following day (Fri) we took a city tour to learn the layout of the city and see the main tourist/historical sites – the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro and the Malceon (sea wall) along the Atlantic Ocean; the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, le Cathedral de la Habana, Plaza Viejo and the Capitol Building in La Habana Vieja (Old Havana); the Plaza de la Revolucion and the Mirmar district. All sections of the city except Mirmar are decrepit and run down. Mirmar is the section that contained the mansions owned by foreigners. The mansions were confiscated by the government and sold to embassies and given to the elite in government. The area is still maintained nicely and there are military guards located at every intersection. After the tour we stayed in the old city for most of our visit.

 By Sat I had still not heard from the ‘travel’ agency. No reps called or met with us and I began to worry about picking up my race packet. Fortunately I had a contact number and bribed a desk clerk to call the number and track down a rep for information. Thankfully she was able to learn the location of the race registration and she also informed me that the travel agency was in fact the Sports Dept. of the Communist Government! No wonder I couldn’t get any service or response! I walked over to the location at the start/finish line and was able to pick up my race packet. The ‘travel agent’ whom I had communicated with for the past year was there and she did help me but ignored my comments about poor/no service! The race package had included registration for both of us and they refused to give us a discount for a non-runner so the sports manager registered for the Half and picked up a race T-shirt. We declined to go to the pre-race pasta dinner (served at noon) but I did accept the course tour that was part of the package. The only people interested were foreign runners and there were enough to fill one bus. We were given a military/police escort through the city and were whisked through all intersections and red lights as we toured the half marathon loop. Got to admit – the Communists can be efficient when the military is involved! The course started in front of the Capitol Building (a model of the US capitol), ran down to the Ocean and along the Malceon, through the Vedada past the Plaza de la Revolucion and back to the capitol Bldg. The first 9 Km were flat but the next 8 Km had several hills. I didn’t think the course would affect my race strategy. Because of the DVT and lack of training I planned to run 10 min and walk 1 min for the entire race.

While I was taking the course tour the Sports Manager tried to find an Internet Café. Internet is only available at the tourist hotels and each hotel is assigned a certain number of cards (or minutes of internet access). Our hotel was out of cards and she had to go to another hotel. Locals are not allowed access to the Internet! Later we were able to get a pasta dinner at our hotel.

 Sun was M –day! I joined about 1000 runners as we lined up at the start line for the 7am start. It was dark and the weather was warm and humid with temps in the high 60s. There were about 300 runners in the marathon – mostly foreign runners from Europe. There were large contingents from Norway, Denmark and Germany. Many local runners approached me and asked/begged for my shoes after the race (a few wanted them for the race). Most were running bare foot. I wish I had known about the scarcity of shoes so I could have taken a few pairs of old shoes with me. The races were better organized than the rest of the trip. There were lots of police/military along the course and the roads were closed down so there were no problems with traffic. There were distance markers every Km and water stations every 2 Km. I had specifically asked before the race and was advised that there would be bottled water so I was upset and concerned when I reached the 1st water stop and saw them filling small plastic bags with water from a water truck? Oh well  - I decided I had no choice but to drink the water to prevent severe dehydration. I drank lots of water at every station to reduce the risk of further complications with the DVT. I expected to suffer from side (or bottom) effects after the race but luckily had no problems?

 I stuck religiously to my pre-race plan of run 10 min and walk 1 min and was pleasantly surprised when I completed the 1st Half Marathon loop in 2:00:20? As I started the 2nd loop I figured I could break 4 hrs if I was willing to abandon my run/walk strategy but I was too concerned about increasing the risk of complications/re-occurrence of DVT. Instead I stretched the run interval to 20 min during the 2nd Half. I started to pass a lot of other old farts – mostly Europeans who had succumbed to the heat and humidity. When I passed 32 Km in 3:03 I figured I still had a chance but my legs were starting to tire and the quads were starting to hurt due to the lack of training. When I passed 37 Km in 3:30:48 I realized that I would have to push the pace and accept pain to finish under 4 hrs but I wisely decided not to risk it and instead slowed down and cruised to the finish line in 4:02:27. This was much faster/better than expected/planned and I was quite pleased. And more importantly I was still ALIVE!

 Not surprisingly there were no results posted at the finish line so the sports manager and I went back to the hotel and returned to the finish line later. Still no results! It took a few weeks of bugging the race director after I got home to learn that my official finish time was 4:02:27 and I had surprisingly won my age group. That was great news! Icing on the cake so-to-speak. I had persevered and ran/walked the marathon with a constant fear/concern about the DVT and had still won my age group! Of course I never expect to see the award?

 After the marathon it was time to get out of Havana. We had booked two days at a beach resort on the Playas Del Estes about 20 miles east of Havana. On Mon morning a rep actually showed up (almost on time) to transfer us to the beach resort. What a difference! Even though the resort was an older resort it was modern with all the expected amenities – beach, pool, health spa, etc. It was all-inclusive with food and booze. However after one day of lying in the sun by the pool we were both bored. And the weather turned cool so we couldn’t even lay by the pool. I went for a 10-mile run into a small village and the locals looked at me like I was crazy? We discovered that there was no Internet access at the resort. “Internet is only available in Havana” we were advised?

 Mercifully Wed arrived and we were transferred to the airport for our flight back to Nassau. We were glad that we had arranged three days in the Bahamas on the tail end. It was nice to enjoy the luxury and comforts of the Bahamas! We played tourist and visited many of the sites and enjoyed some great meals – even turkey on Thanksgiving Day!

 It was an interesting trip. I completed my 80th country. And yes we confirmed “Been There- Done That –Ain’t Ever Going Back”!

 However there will be more marathons and more countries and more stories to tell. So stay tuned!

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